BEDMINSTER TWP. Mendham High School friends Seth Kimmel and Mark Brown took some interesting photos of their school last week, from several thousand feet in the air as the pair, owners of brand new pilot’s licenses, flew overhead.
“It was a beautiful day, and the school looked very nice,” said Kimmel, 17, of Chester. “It was a very cool experience to take our inaugural flight over the school we go to.”
Friends since their fifth-grade days playing on the same soccer team, Kimmel and Brown, 18, of Mendham, have always shared a passion for flight and still remember the days they played games at fields near airports and would discuss the planes flying by during the game.
According to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, there are 180,200 private pilot certificates held in the United States. Of those, 3,400 were issued to people between the ages of 16 to 19.
Not all of those who get certificates go on to earn their private licenses, but most who do wait until they are 18 years old. People can obtain a certificate to fly solo at 16 and can earn a license as early as 17. Kimmel is one of a few hundred in the nation to achieve that rare feat.
“When I started out, I saw all these older kids getting their license and thought that was years away, but here we are,” Kimmel said. “I feel like part of an accomplished community.”
Kimmel grew up inspired by his grandfather’s stories of his time as a World War II aviator.
“I’ve been interested in aviation ever since, and a few years ago I found out a fair amount of young people are flying,” Kimmel said. “I talked it over with my parents, my grandfather, and decided to learn.”
After looking at a few local flight programs, Kimmel decided Somerset Airport’s flight school was the best fit for him, due to its instructors and “homey feel.”
Similarly, both of Brown’s parents were Navy pilots.
“So those dinner conversations were always in my mind,” Brown said.
Once Kimmel began talking to Brown about his flying lessons, Brown began taking the same introductory flying courses at Somerset Airport.
“Junior year is when I really started making progress on getting my license,” Brown said.
Despite college applications, school and sports, the pair made time for flight school.
“Both of these kids are also students, they play sports and have jobs, but they still showed up every week to get their license,” said Margo Kay, primary flight instructor for Kimmel and Brown. “They’re very accomplished and are a credit to the aviation community.”
The pair took their first solo flights during the summer of 2013, which Brown said wasn’t as terrifying as one might think.
“Once you take off, the nerves go away,” Brown said.
Kimmel said by the time they were allowed to fly solo, they knew they were prepared.
“We like to say the takeoffs are optional, but landings are mandatory,” Kay said.
To obtain a private pilot’s license, one must achieve a passing score of 70 percent on an FAA written exam and log a minimum of 40 hours in the air, including 10 hours of cross-country flying (more than 150 miles), among other requirements.
“A private license is a license to learn, to start your aviation career,” Kay said.
At Somerset Airport, Kimmel and Brown flew in “Cherokee” planes, each logging about 100 hours in the past two years. Kimmel earned his private license Oct. 28, and Brown followed on Nov. 9.
“I didn’t have a goal of getting my license when I started, I just wanted to fly. But those 40 hours of flight time flew by,” Brown said. “It’s the greatest accomplishment — this little piece of paper, this culmination of everything – that says you’re allowed to fly.”
Now that they’ve obtained their licenses, Kimmel and Brown are turning their focus back to school — both want to be aerospace engineers — and keeping flying as a hobby.
“Even if I don’t get in a plane for a while, they say it’s like riding a bike,” Brown said. “It’s hard to forget how to fly.”
Kimmel said getting his license has prepared him for his planned career.
“I’ve learned more from flying than we ever could have from a textbook,” Kimmel said. “And it’s not like going to flight school was ever a hassle, you’re up in the air flying.”
Brown hopes to enter a service academy after high school to fly, likely the Air Force because they have the most flying positions.
Kimmel said he’d love to fly in the service, but his eyes are not good enough, so he’s looking for the strongest possible aerospace engineer program.
“We just took an interest of ours and found a practical way to do something with it,” Kimmel said. “Almost anyone can do it if you give the right commitment and put in the right amount of time. It’s something worth trying because it’s so rewarding. Exploring new airports, flying different planes, meeting cool people. There are so many great aspects of it. If you want to go for it, just go for it. ”
Kay says obtaining a private pilot’s license typically takes one to two years depending on how frequently one takes classes; from start to finish, the process costs about $8,000 to $10,000.
“It saves a lot of time and money to do your homework outside of the course,” Brown said. “And if you can, do it with a friend.”
“If you’re looking at the sky,” Kay said. “It’s time to fly.”
Staff Writer Michael Izzo: 973-428-6636; firstname.lastname@example.org